Montanans Protest Republican Assault On Workers, Environment
HELENA, Montana, February 22, 2011 (ENS) – Protests against union-busting state bills and cuts to state programs are spreading from Wisconsin across the country today. In Montana, the environment is front and center as protesters challenge Governor Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, on his budgetary plans, which they say cut health, nvironmental, and labor programs to pay for corporate tax cuts.
As states burdened by ballooning budget deficits attempt to eliminate public employees’ collective bargaining rights or cut state-funded programs, thousands are demonstrating in favor of the unions.
People jammed the capitol in Ohio today, Indiana’s House Democrats staged a walkout and 14 Wisconsin Democratic lawmakers remain in an undisclosed location outside the state.
In Helena, conservationists, sportsmen, firefighters, teachers, correctional officers and others held two rallies on the capitol’s north lawn Monday demanding that Republicans focus more on creating jobs and less on ramming through controversial bills.
They were protesting a bill by State Senator Chas Vincent that would gut the Montana Environmental Policy Act. Vincent, a Republican from Libby, a small city devastated by asbestos contamination, says, that is what “venture capitalists” need.
They are also protesting against bills by State Representative Joe Read, a Republican, to declare global warming “natural” and “beneficial,” and to prevent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases.
The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives last week passed a bill that provides funding for federal government operations and also blocks the EPA from regulating the heat-trapping gases and slashes the agency’s funding by one-third. The bill now goes to the U.S. Senate for consideration.
George Ochenski of the Montana Environmental Information Center said, “The 2011 Legislature is nothing if not radical in its approach to environmental regulation, so it should come as no surprise to learn there are bills being proposed that target the very bedrock of Montana’s environmental protections – the Constitutional guarantee that all Montanans have an “inalienable right” to a “clean and healthful environment.”
A bill introduced by Representative Dan Kennedy, a Laurel Republican, would amend the Montana State Constitution to add the words “and economically productive” following “clean and healthful.” Since amending the Constitution requires a vote of the people, the measure will be a referendum. It will not require the governor’s signature and will go directly to the ballot if it passes the House and Senate with a combined total of at least 100 “yes” votes.
“The ‘clean and healthful’ guarantee has been targeted by extractive industries ever since Montana Environmental Information Center won a unanimous Montana Supreme Court ruling in 1999 that defined and confirmed that right,” said Ochenski.
Protests are also coming from the local level of government. The Missoula City-County Board of Health wrote Thursday in a letter to members of the Montana Legislature’s Health and Human Services Joint Appropriations Committee that lawmakers in Helena are destroying vital health programs and betraying the public trust.
The letter urges lawmakers to reconsider recent actions, including cutting funding that will “diminish the critical capacity of Montana’s biological reference laboratory for identifying contagious diseases and waterborne and food-borne outbreaks, which have increased in recent years.”
“As citizens charged with protecting local public health, we are certain that it never pays to allow disease to run unchecked,” states the letter to the committee and its chairman, Representative Don Roberts, a Billings Republican. “Doing so, and furthering this neglect by disregarding a vote of the people, betrays the public trust.”
The disruptions began 10 days ago when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker proposed removing nearly all public employee collective bargaining rights to help fill a $3.6 billion hole in that state’s budget.
Walker, a Republican who took office in January, asked the GOP-controlled Legislature to approve the measure. Democrats united against the proposal by leaving the state rather than voting on it. Republicans control the Wisconsin Assembly 60-38-1 and the Senate 19-14.
Over 70,000 Wisconsinites gathered at the State Capitol building in Madison on Saturday to protest Governor Scott Walker’s proposed bill to strip public employees union of their collective bargaining power.
Walker said today he will not negotiate or compromise with Democrats who oppose his plan. “We don’t have any money,” the Republican governor told “USA Today.” “You can’t negotiate in good faith if you don’t have anything to give.”
Walker said he believes the impasse will end if the state sends notices of possible layoffs to thousands of state workers next week. If his budget plan is not passed this week, he said, a required $165 million debt restructuring will force him to start laying off workers.
In Indiana, Governor Mitch Daniels signaled this afternoon that he is ready to drop the so-called “right to work” bill after only three of the state’s 40 House Democrats showed up for work this morning, according to the “Indianapolis Star.”
American union membership in the private sector has in recent years fallen under nine percent – levels not seen since 1932. Unions allege that employer-incited opposition has contributed to this decline in membership.